14: Syncretism & NRMs

At the Liminal Boundaries of “Religions”

Christmas Trees
are a syncretic Christian symbol
from pre-Christian Saxon Europe

  • Syncretism
  • New Religious Movements

The combining of different socio-cultural beliefs or practices.

Persian Karibu

Key Terms

  • Cherubs / Guardian Angels
  • Celtic Cross
  • Christmas Tree
  • Easter (name)
  • Mistletoe
  • Ragnarok
  • Sikhism
  • Haitian Vodoun
  • Mormons (LDS Church)
  • Bahá'í Faith
  • Cao Đài
  • Wicca

Krist on Rodi

ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ ᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ
ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ
ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨ ᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ

Christ was on the cross, yet
the brave came there from afar
to their Lord.

900s, Dream of the Rood

New Religious Movements
Religious Movements after 1800. (Formerly known as “Cults.”)


I. The Middle East: 500s BCE

Judaism: After the Babylonian Exile

  • Mesopotamian Influences in Genesis
    • Two brothers bring God an offering; argue over which is greater.
    • One man is chosen to be saved from a Great Flood
      • God gives the man instructions. He puts animals on his boat.
      • Afte the flood, a dove is released to find dry land.
  • Persian (Zoroastrian) Influences on Jewish Theology
    • Continuously burning sacred flame in temple
    • All people possess a good inclination and an evil inclination
    • Cherubs guard people and sacred places
    • Prophesied Savior (Persian: Shoshyant) coming to redeem his people
    • Paradise (Persian word for Garden) in the Afterlife

II. Europe: 700s CE

Christianity comes to Northern Europe

  • Celtic Exchanges with Christianity
    • Devotion to trees surprised Christian missionaries
    • St. Patrick illustrated the Christian trinity with the shamrock (3 in 1)
    • Celtic Cross is a syncretism of the Celtic circle of life with the Christian cross
  • Saxon Exchanges with Christianity
    • Saxons also venerated trees giving Christianity the evergreen Christmas tree
    • The word Easter has an Anglo-Saxon source in Eostre, the goddess of fertility
    • Ongoing antagonism to Roman authority contributed to the Reformation
  • Norse Exchanges with Christianity

the Symbol of Sikhism

III. Asia: 1400s

Sikhism: the Ninth Largest World Religion

  • Bhakti Hindu Influences
    • Guru Nanak, a travelling mystic, born a Hindu in the Punjab region
    • Karma & Reincarnation: actions in this life effect the next life
    • Maya: the Five Thieves (ego, anger, greed, attachment, and lust) distract us
    • Unlike Hinduism: rejects asceticism, priests, idols, and pilgrimage
  • Islamic Influences
    • Belief in One invisible, supreme, all-powerful God
    • Strong focus on being warrior-defenders of God: wear a kirpan (sword)
    • Rejection of intoxicants like alcohol
    • Unlike Islam: rejects fasting and pilgrimage (cf. God is everywhere)

IV. Americas: 1700s

Haitian Vodou: an African Diaspora Religion

Vodou Ritual Symbol
for Mama Brigit
“Mother of Cemeteries”
Cf. Saint Brigid of Ireland

  • African Influences
    • Born of African Caribbean slaves forced to convert to Christianity
    • Haitian Vodou descends from West African ancestor veneration and spirit worship
  • Catholic Influences
    • Incorporates Catholic theology
      • The Supreme God is called Bondye (Creole French: Good God)
      • Prayers in French and African dialects
      • Images of Catholic saints and Catholic votive candles
    • African spirits disguised as Roman Catholic saints



Joseph Smith
First encounters God and Jesus

Mormon interpretation of God

As man now is, God once was:
As God now is, man may be.

LDS Church Pres. Lorenzo Snow

I. Americas: 1830

  • Mormons: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church)
    • Founded by Joseph Smith (1805-1844)
      • Led by an angel to dig up a book of ancient golden plates in Manchester, New York
      • The golden plates were reportedly inscribed in reformed Egyptian, translated by Smith
      • The plates told the ancient story of Jews who sailed to North America in 589 BCE
        • After his resurrection, Jesus visits the Nephite Jews in North America
        • The light-skinned Nephites are killed off by the dark-skinned Lamanite Jews
        • The Lamanites are the principal ancestors of today’s American Indians
        • 2007 redaction: Lamanites lived “among” the American Indians
      • 1830: the golden plates are the source of the Book of Mormon
    • Unique Mormon doctrine
      • God was a mortal man who achieved godhood
      • Mormon salvation means you too can become a God of your own planet
      • The planet (or star) Kolob is nearest to the throne of God
    • Mormonism & Judaism
      • Mormons are philosemities who also consider themselves a Chosen People,
        worship in temples, call outsiders “Gentiles,” and maintain a priesthood
      • The origin story of Mormonism is their Exodus to the Utah Territory
    • Mormonism & Christianity
      • Mormons repudiate the Nicene Creed: God & Jesus are different persons
      • Joseph Smith produced his own revision of the KJV Bible
    • Mormonism & Islam
      • Both movements begin with an angel revealing scripture to a founding prophet who later faces local persecution
      • Both have fasting rituals, abstain from alcohol, and have a strong emphasis on proselytization
    • Mormonism & Scientific Controversy
      • Mainstream archaeology strongly denies Mormon versions of American Indian history
      • Geneticists and linguists strong deny claims that any American Indian people are descended from Jews

II. The Middle East: 1844

Nine Point Star
of the Bahá'í Faith

  • Bahá'í Faith
    • Bahá’u'lláh (1817-1892) organized a religion that followed the teachings of the Báb
      • Exiled for promoting the Báb’s teachings of unity
      • Unity of God (only one God)
      • Unity of Prophets (all the Prophets are messengers of God)
      • Unity of religion (all religions have the same source)
      • Unit of humanity and diversity (all are created equal)
    • The Báb is claimed to be the return of Elijah (Judaism), the Mahdi (Islam),
      John the Baptist (Christianity), and the Shoshyant (Zoroastrianism)
    • The World Center of the Bahá'í Faith is in Haifa, Israel (pic)

III. Asia: 1926

Cao Đài
uses the Taijitu of Daoism 

  • Cao Đài
    • Established by mediums contacted by God in 1926
    • Adherents follow the wishes of Cao Đài, the Supreme God
    • Practices include prayer, nonviolence, and vegetarianism
    • Connections to Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism
      • Buddhism: Freedom from samsara is a chief goal
      • Daoism: utilizes the teachings of yin and yang
      • Catholicism: Cao Đài has a Pope, cardinals, and bishops

IV. Europe: 1940

Wiccan Pentacle

Scholarly response to Murray

Today, scholars are agreed that Murray was more than just wrong – she was completely and embarrassingly wrong on
nearly all of her basic premises.

Russell & Alexander
A New History of Witchcraft, 2007

  • Wicca
    • Wicca is a modern neopagan religious movement centered in Britain and popular in the U.S.
      • 1940s: loosely formalized by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente
      • No central authority or governing structure
      • Syncretic amalgamation of reportedly ancient indigenous traditions
        • Duotheistic: sacred Feminine (Goddess) & sacred Masculine (God)
        • Modern Wicca ≠ Satanism. This is a common misconception.
        • Some Wiccans practice magic, but not all
    • History of Wicca: 1920s - 1960s
      • 1921: archaeologist Margaret Murray theorizes an ancient Goddess cult
      • 1940: Gerald Gardner studies Murray and begins a Wiccan movement
      • 1951: Due to popular interest, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 is repealed
        • UK spiritualists & psychics can now charge money for “entertainment”
      • 1960s: Murray’s books become popular throughout the world
    • Academic response to historical Wiccan claims
      • By the late 1960s, the Witch-Cult Hypothesis had been thoroughly debunked
        • There is no hard evidence that a coherent “religion” of “Witchcraft”
          as described in the infamous Early Modern Witch trials ever existed
      • Murray’s Witch-Cult Hypothesis is now an infamous case study in Academia
        • Male detractors dismissed Murray's work as sloppy, appalling, “feminized belief”
        • Later female detractors agreed, while also pointing to male-bias within the criticism
        • Today, credentialed historians are agreed that “Witchcraft” existed only in the Christian imagination
          • Medieval “Witchcraft” was an exonymic category of identity used to single out women for political reasons
          • Eg. to establish authority, scapegoating, persecution for social nonconformity, antisemitism, etc.
    • Modern-day Wicca is a growing, syncretic, New Religious Movement with 100,000+ adherents

For those interested, here’s the full list of religious symbols with which our American service men and women may be honored.